Whom Shall We Drone?

The impressive capacity of drone aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles to destroy anyone unprotected by serious air defenses has led the US government (and the think-tank community) to overlook the first-order questions regarding their use, indeed regarding the use of any military force. To wit: Are we targeting those we really want to kill? Who are the people whose deaths would relieve us of our problems? The first is a classic question of intelligence. The second is the classic questions of strategy. But our national security Establishment has accustomed itself to substituting tactics for both intelligence and strategy.

How does the US government select the targets for drone strikes? The answer is no more satisfying than it is pretty. It amounts to sorting second and third-hand rumors that pass as intelligence for lack of anything better. The overarching reason is that the US government’s eighty billion dollar per annum Intelligence Establishment has hardly any independent, secure sources about terrorists. Our CIA so-called clandestine service consists (97%) of persons who merely pretend to be employees of other US agencies and who basically pass along the opinions of Mid-East intelligence services and other self-interested parties. The CIA has zero independent quality control of such “intelligence,” because such quality control would disqualify most of it.

How double-edged CIA human intelligence is may be glimpsed by the insufficiently remembered massacre of seven CIA officers in Afghanistan on December 30 2009. They were blown up by an informant who had been passed to them by Jordanian Intelligence, on whom they had relied for a year and a half to target US drone strikes. It is a safe bet that the countless people killed by the US strikes that he targeted were not enemies of the United States, and that their deaths lengthened rather than shortened the list of America’s enemies.

Our military’s human intelligence is somewhat more reliable, since it usually depends on direct contact between US service members and local tribesmen. But again, such intelligence suffers from the obvious fact that it reflects the sources’ friendships, enmities, and agenda, but above all because it also suffers from lack of quality control.

The other main source of intelligence on terrorism, namely intercepts of telephone and internet communications, suffers from the equally obvious fact that all sentient persons know perfectly well that the US government is listening in. It takes an act of will for the US government to imagine that terrorists choose not to use secret means of communications, and choose to bare their identities, locations, and plans on electronic channels they know to be compromised. The US government seems to believe that they are just asking to be “droned.”

MQ-9 Reaper

MQ-9 Reaper

All of this is to say that we should not dismiss out of hand the cries of people from Afghanistan to Yemen who claim that US drone strikes have killed innocents, or accept uncritically the news reports that dozen after dozen of militants and al Qaeda hierarchs have been eliminated. We don’t know.

Suppose however that every person killed by US drone strikes were a terrorist who would strike America if he could. Still, though those who shout “there are a billion Osamas” exaggerate, they point to a dreadful reality: having killed terrorists for more than a decade, we are beset by more terrorists than ever. This naturally raises the question of who the enemies may be whose deaths would rid us of our troubles or at least diminish them. That is a question of strategy rather than one of intelligence.

Drone strikes are a powerful tactic. But the proper strategy depends on identifying our problems’ causes: who and what encourages and enables, and who and what discourages and constrains the bombers and trigger-pullers? While some of the most important causes, e.g. Western society’s corruption and alienation from its own principles cannot be remedied by force, others are amenable to precise targeting.

Today’s Islamist terrorists live physically, usually financially, and above all psychologically, in Muslim countries. When their ties are sub-national, they are nevertheless to well-known groups such as Hizbullah or the PLO or to ancestral tribes. None of these regimes, groups, or tribes is what anyone might call permissive. Their rulers rule with bloody iron hands and claim to be unique sources of authority. They make no distinction between society and regime, between state and Mosque. This is a sword one of whose handles the US could grasp.

The US government could use drones effectively to face these rulers with the stark choice between seeing to it that no one, but no one, who lives in or under their orbit shall have any involvement with anti American terrorism and being killed by a US drone. No excuses, no exceptions. Indeed the prospect of sudden death could cause such potentates positively to encourage educational and religious practices leading to peace rather than terrorism. Or they could choose to die, personifying anti-Americanism’s deadly futility.

On the other hand, the US government could continue to use drones as it has, against an uncertain mixture of insignificants and innocents. Who would argue that a decade from now Americans will be safer thereby?

Angelo M. Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and is a Senior Fellow of The Claremont Institute. He served as a U.S. Senate Staff member dealing with oversight of the intelligence services. His new book Peace Among Ourselves and With All Nations was published by Hoover Institution Press.

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  1. says

    The US government could use drones effectively to face these rulers with the stark choice between seeing to it that no one, but no one, who lives in or under their orbit shall have any involvement with anti American terrorism and being killed by a US drone. No excuses, no exceptions.

    This vitiates an otherwise thoughtful piece. It is impractical to the point of being silly. What constitutes “any involvement?” Quoting bellicose excerpts from the Koran? Saying the hijackers of 9/11 were courageous, as per Bill Maher? Financing a nephew’s travel to Pakistan for “education?” Israel killed Sheik Yassin and God knows how many other Hamas leaders, yet Hamas still embraces, and encourages terrorism and adheres to a nutty, apocalyptic fantasy that their medieval hatreds are somehow pious.

    Substitute “illegal drug trafficking” or any other foreign policy interest for “anti-American terrorism” and see if this still makes good policy sense.

    • John Stephens says

      “Impractical” you say? Perhaps, but how is it any less practical than what we’re already doing? And what is your alternative?

  2. JS says

    Sadly, z9z99 gives Angelo too much credit. He is all bluster, and bravado, and this policy recommendation has no more thought behind it than any other.

    This piece as a whole is hopelessly flawed. In an apparent attempt to distract from the lack of a serious policy recommendation, we see little more a stream of distinctions without differences and questions that go unanswered (we are merely told “that’s a question of strategy”, “that’s a question of intelligence”, “that’s a question of tactics…”).

    Codevilla seems not to give any thought to the difference between using remotely piloted aircraft to deliver ordnance or guided missiles, as opposed to aircraft that are piloted with a human being in an expensive cockpit, higher costs, greater risks to American life and treasure, less ability to loiter and surveil for longer periods of time, and wait for the right moment to strike. Would Codevilla or prefer that a particular target be destroyed by an F-16 with a 2000lb bomb with no ability to wait around for the right target, or would it be better to have more precision, and more choice in terms of when and under what circumstances the target is destroyed?

    Both the military and industry are correct to insist upon “remotely piloted vehicles” as opposed to the Star Wars term “drone,” for the latter conjures up an image of mindless autonomy which has no relation.

    The answer to the title question, “whom shall we drone?” is whomever or whatever is a legitimate and prudent target. The mechanism by which a target is targeted is a much more minor point. And whether they are targeted using vehicles piloted by extensive technology in a cockpit, or piloted using extensive technology via remote, really doesn’t matter all that much–not in terms of strategy, nor tactics, nor the law of armed conflict.

    That Codevilla indulges a level of silliness about such matters suggests, again, that he is not a serious thinker.

    And please proofread. In typical Angelo style, this is filled with grammatical mistakes.


  1. […] Yes — to this man, opposition to U.S. state-sponsored terrorism is leftist and anti-American. This is the sort of nationalist extremist with which we are dealing. Codevilla even thinks that we should threaten to drone strike innocent civilians in order to put pressure on Islamist terrorist leaders. This is not an exaggeration. He believes “the prospect of sudden death” is a legitimate rhetorical device. […]

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